‘A Way of Life Never Expressed in Literature’
by Dan Flaherty
‘Go to the Aran Islands, and find a life that has never been expressed in literature’ was the advice of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. The Aran Islands lie just off the southwest coast of Ireland, in Galway Bay. With family roots there—I’m from the American Midwest though my grandfather was born on Inis Orr—I’ve had the good fortune to visit on four occasions and can say with certainty that Yeats was right.
There is no way to truly describe the spell of Aran.
Inis Orr makes you stop and listen
There are three islands, next to one other. The one I’ve visited is the smallest of the three, Inis Oirr (pronounced In-ish-ear). You can travel to Inis Oirr either by boat or by small plane.
The first thing that strikes you upon arriving is that, although you’re only a quick plane ride and a few miles from Galway, you feel as if you’ve separated from civilization itself. Inis Oirr slows you down and makes you stop and listen.
The people of Aran live close to the elements
“We lived close to nature,” said a longtime resident who grew up on Inis Oirr in the 1980s. “We were close to the elements. I felt close to the sea through swimming…other people feel close to the sea through fishing. For years it (fishing) has provided food for families and an extra income.”
The proximity to the sea and the reliance on fishing is an essential part of Inis Oirr’s heritage. Men used to take the currachs out, often as far as the nearby Cliffs of Mohr on the coast of the mainland, looking to find their food. A currach is a kind of Irish boat with a wooden frame, over which animal skins or hides traditionally were stretched, though now canvas is more usual.
Life contained cold reality and intricate patterns
Although there’s a certain romance to this way of life, there also was a cold reality: A number of the fishermen drowned. Each family on the island had a distinctive pattern the women would knit or crochet into their men’s sweaters to enable them to identify the family to which a body belonged if he should wash ashore. Inis Oirr—and the rest of the Aran Islands—are famous for their hand knitted wool sweaters.
Other hardships abounded for the people of Inis Oirr. Stones all over the island impede the farming necessary for survival. The islanders removed the stones from their fields and from them created walls upon walls that weave through Inis Oirr as though they’re part of a puzzle.
The Aran sweater patterns and the fences made of stone are two distinct elements of cultural beauty today. Both are products of hardship, of the residents of Inis Oirr making the best of the situation they were in.
Hardships were balanced by family closeness
Whatever hardships may have existed, they often were made up for by closeness with family and with the community: With only 300 people on the island, ‘community’ includes everyone on Inis Oirr.
“Everyone watched out for another,” the longtime resident recalled. “It was very safe, zero crime rate. It’s…culturally rich in the Irish language. We all grew up playing an instrument…and learning Irish dancing.”
Catholic elements are woven into the culture
The preservation of traditional Irish culture has become an important part of Inis Oirr’s life today. The island hosts summer programs where students on the mainland attend mandatory courses to learn Gaelic, and ensure Irish culture lives on.
The cultural elements of Catholicism remain woven into the culture, but Catholicism on Inis Oirr is in much the same condition as it is on the mainland, with a lack of practice of the Faith. After attending Mass there one Sunday, I came out of the church to see men lined up at one of the stone fences, smoking their cigars.
Surprisingly, the men do this as a sign of respect—the belief that they shouldn’t be in the pub while the Mass is being offered. The framework is there for a renewed era of the Catholic Church, if the right apostle is found to light the spark.
St. Caomham evangelized the islands
In the sixth century, that apostle was St. Caomhan, who first evangelized the islands. The church named after him is built of stone and sunk into the ground, but you can still see the skeletal form of the original structure.
The road to rebuilding Catholic faith and culture in the West is a long one, but there is one important area where Inis Oirr surely helps light the path: the complete lack of materialism in the island culture.
The Aran way of life requires you to slow down and appreciate beauty, the landscape is a living testament to the glory of creation, and the greatest values are placed on family and friendship, rather than wealth accumulation and prestige.